Freed from state control, religious authorities—drawing on their moral authority and extensive mass communication networks, and benefiting from the weakness of secular forces—quickly filled the political void created by the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. A year later, these authorities remain the principal shapers of public opinion among most Iraqi Arabs.
Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the preeminent Shiite cleric, repeatedly has mobilized public opinion against the transition plans of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Yet, he rarely speaks in public; his only widely available work is a basic worship and transactions guidebook. Most of Sistani's political views remain a mystery, even to his followers. His true source of influence is his extensive network of wakils, or clerical representatives, that allow him to coordinate messages in hundreds of mosques. Sistani largely inherited this infrastructure from his mentor, Ayatollah Abu Al Qasim Al Khu'i (1899-1992); his network is currently administered by his eldest son, Muhammad Rida.
In January, at Sistani's instigation, his wakils rejected the Coalition's plan to appoint regional councils and demanded direct elections. Their sermons, along with leaflets and posters distributed by affiliated Shiite organizations, brought tens of thousands of Shiites into the streets to demonstrate against the plan. Likewise, wakils have shaped many Shiites' negative reaction to the March 2004 interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law. In particular, they have criticized an article stating that the permanent constitution cannot take effect if "two-thirds of the voters in three or more governorates" reject it, seeing this as a "Kurdish veto" because there are three majority Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq. Since most Iraqis know little about the intricacies of federalism, the wakils' statements that federalism will generate schisms among Muslims and will deny Shiites their rightful influence have had a strong effect.
Sistani also uses his wakils to limit the influence of Moqtada Al Sadr, the young cleric engaged in a standoff with Coalition forces in al-Najaf and whose militia is fighting U.S. troops in Baghdad and the south. Sistani has not strongly condemned Moqtada's militia, but his clerics have preached that a junior cleric like Moqtada cannot authorize a religious uprising.
Sistani's authority is not inviolable. He knows that rival populist leaders would challenge his prestige, along with the influence of the entire clerical establishment, if his pronouncements were ignored. Thus, he picks his fights strategically by issuing only rulings that will resonate with the public. Such considerations help to explain Sistani's hesitancy to directly condemn Moqtada and demand he dissolve his militia. Sistani's preeminent position among Shiites would be weakened if Moqtada publicly ignored an official statement. Other clerics might seek to play a direct role in political decision-making, thereby reducing Sistani's ability to influence the Shiite members of the post-June 30 interim government.
Abdul Salam Al Kubaisi's Council of Muslim Clergy plays a similar role in shaping Sunni Arab public opinion. Established after the fall of Baghdad, the Council coordinates sermons and political messages through Sunni mosques. Council members have aggravated sectarian tensions by accusing Shiite militias of seizing Sunni mosques after the war, and helped to block coalition plans to deploy Turkish troops to Iraq. Influential members preach about the legitimacy of armed resistance against occupation and of targeting Iraqi collaborators. Council clerics helped to organize Sunni Arab activism against the recent siege of Fallujah. They also condemned the rash of foreign hostage-taking in April; Sunni insurgents released hostages directly to Al Kubaisi's deputies.
These religious authorities do not speak for all Shiites or Sunnis, of course. Many Shiites disagree with Sistani's positions, but without channels of mass mobilization their voices remain unheard or unheeded. Nor does the Council reflect the diversity of Sunni Arabs, who include Salafis, Sufis, Muslim Brothers, and secular nationalists. In the absence of strong rivals—due in part to the Coalition's exclusion of former Baathists from the political process and its marginalization of many Sunni tribal leaders—the Council's messages are amplified.
Recent reversals of the de-Baathification process may dilute the Council's influence among some Sunni Arabs. Yet, Sunni and Shiite religious authorities will continue to play a dominant political role after the June 30 transition to a caretaker government that will govern until elections are held by January 2005. Despite objections from some Iraqi Governing Council members, the United Nations and the United States reportedly still plan to appoint to this government technocrats and non-tribal leaders who are political unknowns and lack natural constituencies. This situation will have three main ramifications. First, although the legislative powers of the interim government remain unclear, religious authorities are likely to mount a concerted campaign to replace Iraq's existing uniform Personal Status Law with religious laws, as they unsuccessfully attempted in late 2003 and early 2004. Second, they will hotly contest the nature of Iraqi federalism. Sistani's objections to the "Kurdish veto" and any devolution of power away from the center will shape the debate. Third, and perhaps most important, religious authorities' domination of mass communication will hinder the ability of public opinion to form along non-sectarian lines.
David Siddhartha Patel is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at Stanford University. He has spent the past year conducting research in Iraq.